Mozart’s Prague and Prokofiev
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 38 in D major, "Prague" 
  • This symphony takes its name from the Czech capital, where audiences loved Mozart and his music more than in Vienna 
  • The slow introduction to the first movement is stately and dignified, then gives way to a sparkling allegro as much fun as the overture to The Marriage of Figaro 
  • Depth, expression, and marvelous woodwind writing adorn the Andante 
  • There’s no minuet in this symphony- but all three movements are in sonata form 

    The Marriage of Figaro was greeted with only lukewarm enthusiasm by Mozart's Vienna in 1786. To the northwest, however, in the Bohemian capital of Prague, the Czechs loved it. They thronged to performances, adapted its arias into popular dances and sang its melodies in the streets. Hungry for the acclaim that continued to elude him in Vienna, Mozart set out for Prague in January 1787 to capitalize on Figaro's success.  

    He took with him a new symphony that he had completed in early December. Though it was probably completed before he decided to make the journey to Prague, the work has been known as the "Prague" symphony since its first performance there on 19 January 1787. K.504 is also known as “the symphony without a minuet," an unusual omission in Mozart's late symphonies. Music historians suggest that Czech audiences were accustomed to such curtailed symphonic form.  

    An extensive slow introduction to the first movement presages the world of Don Giovanni. It shares the key of D with that opera's overture, as well as vacillation between major and minor modes, and sinister undertones in the majestic opening section. Many scholars consider the first movement to be Mozart's finest symphonic effort. The Allegro section overflows with the delighted exuberance Mozart must have experienced in receptive Prague. Its development section foreshadows The Magic Flute, particularly in the handling of the woodwinds.  

    A relaxed Andante in triple time seems to half-merge characteristics of both courtly minuet and cantilena. The finale, marked Presto, is mischievous and spirited, rounding out a work that is surely on a par with Mozart's superb final symphonic trilogy.  

    Mozart scored the "Prague" symphony for flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs; timpani, and strings. 

    Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
    Sinfonia Concertante
    • Prokofiev reworked an early, unsatisfactory cello concerto into this piece
    • His inspiration was a brilliant young lion of a cellist named Mstislav Rostropovich 
    • The intricate, vigorous orchestral writing makes this a virtuoso work for everyone
    • Sinfonia concertante means ‘symphony-concerto’ - cello is first among equals here 
    • In the 1950s and 1960s, most cellists considered this piece unplayable!

      With Prokofiev, the man is never far from the music. In his early works, youthful rebellion expressed itself in iconoclastic, daring pieces that scandalized the pre-revolutionary Russian musical establishment. Prokofiev exploited an adventurous harmonic vocabulary with glib abandon, pushing the boundaries of tonality with rhythmic drive to match his aggressive dissonance.   

      Prokofiev lived abroad from 1918 to 1934, first in the United States and then in Paris. But his was a profoundly Russian spirit. Despite misgivings about the political climate in his homeland, he returned to the Soviet Union permanently in spring 1935. In his later years, his abrasive style ceded to a simpler, more accessible musical language that is most easily explained as neoclassicism, but may actually have been prompted by political guidelines for composers dictated by the Stalinist régime.   

      The extraordinary Sinfonia Concertante is a reworking of his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.58, which occupied him on and off from 1933 to 1938 – critical years of transition in his personal life. The Concerto’s premiere in 1938 received scathing reviews, and Prokofiev withdrew it. Two years after the end of World War II, a young cellist named Mstislav Rostropovich somehow obtained a copy of the score and performed the forgotten concerto at the Moscow Conservatory. Prokofiev attended the performance and, impressed by the young man’s exceptional technique and profound musicality, offered to revise the early concerto for him. Before tackling that project, however, he also composed a new cello sonata for Rostropovich and began two other works for the instrument. Both were incomplete when Prokofiev died in March 1953; however, collectively these other works were helpful in increasing Prokofiev’s comfort level writing for cello.  

      The revised concerto score, eventually renamed Sinfonia Concertante, is a splendid achievement and one of the glories of Prokofiev’s last years. Cast in three large movements spanning nearly 40 minutes, it is a composite of all Prokofiev’s strengths: rhythmic inventiveness, humor tinged with satire, and ravishing lyric themes. Massive in scope, the Sinfonia Concertante is widely regarded as one of the most difficult pieces in the concerted cello repertoire.  

      Prokofiev and his second wife, Mira Mendelson, invited Rostropovich to spend two summers with them so that he could actively collaborate on the revision. We know that Prokofiev asked Rostropovich to show him cello pieces employing modern techniques. Numerous cadenza passages in the Sinfonia Concertante doubtless reflect Rostropovich’s input and desire to include brilliant technical display.   

      Prokofiev opens with a march that serves as underpinning for the first theme. Repetitive rhythms furnish a backdrop for soaring melodies in this first movement. A sense of melancholy pervades the movement, which introduces a wealth of additional melodic material. The textures often feature contrasting instrumental sonorities moving in opposite directions, for example an ascending woodwind scale against a lyrical countertheme in the lower register. The soloist plays almost constantly. While largely absent of high drama, this first movement is rich in emotional content and intensity.   

      The central Allegro giusto clocks in at approximately 16 minutes, which makes it one of the lengthiest movements Prokofiev ever composed. Right out of the gate, it is clear that we are meant to be dazzled by technical bravura. The cellist plays so fast that the bow is a visual blur. Propulsive forward movement ushers in a dizzying amount of thematic material, ranging from perpetual motion motor rhythms, to the sardonic and biting wit at which Prokofiev excelled, and then the meltingly lovely lyricism which may have been his strongest suit. When the tender themes emerge, they are balm to the ear: precious oases offering temporary relief from the maelstrom of the fast music. The Allegro giusto is also the vessel for the monumental solo cadenza, which occurs midway through the movement, rather than in its traditional position at the end.   

      The finale opens with a luxuriant theme in E major for cello. Several variations ensue, with the soloist embroidering its way around various members of the orchestra as they assume Prokofiev’s melody. His gift for shifting moods is much in evidence; the theme alters character as different instruments take their turn. Even more than in the earlier movements, we have the sense that this is a full concerto for orchestra, with the cello as first among equals. Prokofiev’s handling of the large ensemble is masterful, navigating seamlessly between delicate and powerful, and never obscuring the eloquent voice of the cello. The closing minutes unfold as a sort of march (though mostly in stately triple time). Prokofiev gradually builds to a frenzied climax, with the cello in its high register at the thrilling, decisive close.   

      The score calls for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, triangle, celesta, solo violoncello, and strings.  

      © Laurie Shulman, 2020